The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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January 7, 2014

Pick better peppers with a peck of pepper knowledge

Q: I really like cooking with peppers and always see different varieties on the shelf — but I only ever buy bell peppers and the occasional jalapeno. What’s the difference between all the peppers?

A: With their glossy-smooth skins, curvy shapes and intense colors from deep green to bright orange and red, peppers are beautiful. But it’s their range of flavors and heat levels that captivate cooks. While some varieties hit the palate like a bolt of lightning, others are mild-mannered and sweet, offering hints of spice and fruitiness.

Beyond good looks, peppers are packed with vitamins and antioxidants. Yellow and red bells are a great go-to source of vitamin C, which is vital in maintaining healthy tissues and a strong immune system. A half-cup of raw, red sweet pepper contains 142 milligrams of vitamin C (twice as much as an orange).

All bell peppers start out green. As they continue to ripen on the vine and become yellow, then orange and red, they pack in more nutrients. Brighter bells contain high amounts of carotenoids, which help boost immunity, fight cancer and heart disease and help protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration.

The hotter chiles contain many of the same nutrients as bell peppers, but in smaller doses. They’re terrific for boosting flavor in recipes without adding extra sodium or fat. The hot and spicy flavors also encourage slower eating, which can help dieters stay on track with their weight-loss goals. Capsaicin, the potent chemical responsible for their heat, even offers a few other health benefits. Eating hot peppers ramps up the metabolism, switching the body into fat-burning mode. Newer studies indicate that capsaicin may help lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels and may even stop the growth of cancer cells.

When purchasing peppers, look for firm glossy fruits that are brightly colored and feel heavy for their size. Store whole, unwashed peppers in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to five days. Scoville Heat Units (SHU) are given in order of heat level for each pepper to help you choose what’s hot enough for you. The heat of peppers ranges depending on weather conditions, soil, etc.

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